October Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Journalism is full of situations and trends that often seem immutable. Or are they? Ten years ago the Indian mediascape seemed to be plodding along on an unexciting path. Barring Outlook magazine, no major English language publication was launched. However 1991 ushered in an electronic media revolution, thanks to the Gulf War, but the hundred channels that bloomed subsequently merely blurred the distinction between taste, tact and truth. Overall there seemed to be no frisson of excitement. Generally newspaper circulation was plateauing, with some eyeballs having shifted to TV along with advertising. On the establishment side, too, there was an element of ennui. The Indian government could not articulate a definitive media policy, especially dithering over allowing foreign investment into domestic media groups.

But scan the current Indian media scene and it’s a changed place. After years of stupor there is a buzz in the profession. It’s as if the industry has reached the ‘tipping point,’ the title of the best selling book whose author, Malcolm Gladwell, argued that when they reach a critical mass, small changes have the potential to assume epidemic proportions. Despite the dawn of the internet age, leading media groups are launching new publications; others are opening new editions. By the end of the year, more around-the-clock news channels will be on the air. Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) are regularly being announced by closely held media companies wanting to access public funds. There just don’t seem to be enough journalists to go around, and salaries — always a good indicator of positive energy — have peaked unrealistically.

In keeping with the general enthusiasm the government, too, seems more amenable to foreign investment. As the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Jaipal Reddy said, rather MTV-ishly, at the Indian Magazine Summit held in Delhi recently, “Media is the hottest industry in India.”

Last month, despite the deluge that lashed the city, media heat was highest in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. In a sense, the city is an obvious choice for a concerted media assault. Some 700,000 newspapers are sold daily in this ad-rich city, half of Delhi’s 15 lakh. Even with The Times of India cornering the largest share of the English language market, the potential for other publications to enter the market is huge.

With the launch of three major newspapers in July, the city has become a media incubator. First came Bombay Mirror, a tabloid backed by The Times of India group; followed by the long awaited launch of the Mumbai edition of The Hindustan Times and bringing up the rear was 54-page newspaper, DNA, an acronym for Daily, News and Analysis. There are more possibilities in the pipeline. Talk that Kolkata’s Telegraph owned by Ananda Bazaar Patrika will soon start a Mumbai edition refuses to die down, as do rumours that The Hindu is also keenly sussing out the same market.

The bustle in Mumbai is not isolated. Over the last year there seems to have been a collective decision by newspapers at an all India level to start new editions. Some of the fresher mastheads include The Times of India when it launched an edition in Chennai, long considered to be a stronghold of The Hindu. Earlier, the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle did the same. In the east, The Indian Express entered Kolkata. Even the low key Pioneer started five franchisee editions in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Further north, Chandigarh’s Tribune started new editions in Jullunder and Amritsar.

The TV world is also in a similar expansionist mode. By the end of this year, four new 24-hour news channels will be added to the existing clutch of 30, out of which four are in English. Living Today, owners of Aaj Tak, is talking about starting new business and lifestyle channels. The Sahara group plans to launch city-based channels in major Indian metros. The English CNBC-TV 18 financial channel has spawned Awaaz, a Hindi financial channel, and is backing a news channel, tentatively baptised Broadcast News which its promoters say will appear in the last quarter of this year.

In the face of all this activity, it is difficult to be pessimistic. But the commotion does raise important questions. What has caused this sudden spurt? Will it create the potential of a few large media companies to dominate the media market? And more importantly, what will this expansion translate to in terms of editorial content? Will a more combative, aggressive type of journalism emerge which might make India a media-rich country but poor in terms of content and concern, or will this boom encourage a more professional media?

A prime catalyst for this growth has undoubtedly been the availability of capital. The media industry today appears to be flush with funds. A vibrant media backed by a strong economy has opened a whole new market for upscale consumer products to advertise in: mobiles, motorcycles, banks, computers, automobiles, credit cards -you name it and they are targeting the country’s burgeoning, TV-owning, newspaper-reading, 250 million-strong middle class. Industry analysts say that TV adspend in India is slated to increase by 12 per cent this year, almost twice the global average of 6.7 per cent, while advertising in print is expected to grow by an amazing 25 per cent compared to the global average of 3.8 per cent present.

The government’s new policy allowing 26 per cent of foreign equity in news operations and 100 per cent in specialised, non-news publications, has further increased the scope for investment. In the last two years Indian media ventures have raised over 300 million dollars in foreign funds, and more is expected soon. Government permission allowing facsimile editions and increased foreign syndication content has added up to a more flexible establishment mindset, helping India to become a more attractive media investment destination.

Money is pouring in from the public as well. IPO announcements by media companies have received a tumultuous public response. Four IPOs have already been announced this past year and three more, including one by the Express group are scheduled. Most recently the Hindustan Media IPO, promoters of The Hindustan Times group, was over-subscribed three times, while earlier the NDTV IPO was oversubscribed 17 times.

Helping this money to become more productive is the country’s media market potential. Bucking global trends, circulation figures are increasing annually by 20 per cent. India is the third largest cable market in the world. It is these statistics that are tempting magazines like Forbes and Businessweek to examine the possibility of publishing in India.

The lure of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is creating a different mediascape. Established media groups are zealously investing in cross media holdings, creating possible monopolies and behemothic media empires. Media interests from the same group now span newspapers, television, internet, even radio. The Times group, publishers of The Times of India, through sheer size and diversity of interests is ready to assume a Murdochian persona. It has established interests in print; internet, radio and music. Lately, it has joined forces with Reuters to form Times Global to enter the world of TV news. The channel called Times Now, to be launched in November, is the result of that union. The group already has a joint venture with The Asian Wall Street Journal and plans to produce an upscale financial daily. For its magazine division it has a tie-up with BBC. With a circulation of 1.4 million, the 170 year-old The Times of India claims it is the world’s largest English daily, beating even USA Today.

Another potential giant is the Bhaskar group, financial underwriters of DNA, which runs an 1,800 crore rupees enterprise with a presence in the cable industry and oil. With 18 editions, selling 2.4 million copies a day, Danik Bhaskar is the most widely circulated Hindi paper in India. If the group’s Mumbai venture succeeds, it plans to branch into other towns to start English language papers where it already has printing presses and existing distribution networks.

On the brighter side though, these advances are also successfully dismantling the walls between Hindi and English media operations and other vernacular languages. The recently launched English DNA, for instance, is the result of a 50:50 financial alliance between the Hindi Zee Television and the Dainik Bhaskar group. The Kanpur-based Jagran Prakashan, publishers of Danik Jagran, a Hindi daily, has joined forces with The Independent, an Irish newspaper and has most recently launched a news channel, Channel 7. Kolkata’s Ananda Bazaar Patrika, whose flagship paper is in Bengali, is a majority stakeholder in Murdoch’s news channel, Star News, and if market gossip is to be believed also wants to start a lifestyle channel. Backed by its successful IPO and after its successful Mumbai launch, The Hindustan Times has said, that it will be seriously looking at the vernacular press and Hindi television within two years.

Obviously the presence of ever-growing media empires will flatten India’s hitherto diverse mediascape. According to Information and Broadcasting ministry statistics, the country has 55,728 publications printed in 19 languages. Of these nearly 2,000 are dailies; and a majority of them are small-time operations. Inevitably, consolidation of media holdings will result in a shakeout: The small time journalist in moffusil towns who doubles up as an advertising agent will be replaced by the highly paid, full-time scribe. Crummy, hole in the wall operations, so long a hallmark of local media, will give way to shiny, glass and chrome, corporatised buildings adorned with modern art. One only has to look at the spiffy DNA offices in Mumbai and new Express building coming up in Delhi to realise how dramatically, and suddenly, the image of the Indian media is changing. Inevitably, it will be the survival of the financially fittest; those who can undercut ad rates and evolve complicated pricing strategies.

While the business opportunities for the media industry are clear, what this cornucopia will bring readers is not. Arguably, there will be a specialisation within. For instance, in order to attract a young demographic, the Bombay Mirror is positioning itself as a ‘newspaper with an attitude.’ The 24-page newspaper with regular pull-outs and an elaborate section for children is hoping to attract the speed headline reader. DNA is deliberately aiming at the intelligent, non-page three, English reader, who wants to ‘seriously’ go beyond the headlines. With many daily supplements ranging from lifestyle, real estate, manners and mores to money, it is targeting specific niche readers rather than the generalist news consumer.

The specific targeting will result in a less democratic media where the mainstream press may not be driven by political passion or social concerns. The emphasis will be on presentation rather than content. Graphics are sure to be state of the art; the photo montages will definitely be wilder and the headlines wittier but, at the end of the day, there will be less news in the news. Media critics fear there might be more aspirational reporting rather than increased coverage of the ground reality of a developing country. And a new template for journalism and journalists will be the norm.

As media operations get bigger they are bound to wield more influence and power. With growing proximity to the system, editors will push the envelope but may not want to question the establishment. We could be seeing the dawn of an era where integrity is a liability. To cut competition and create bigger self images, brand-building exercises will be as important as news operations, thus breaking down walls between editorial and business operations. And readers may well be left wondering what happened to good old-fashioned reporting.

It is not as if this media explosion comes without hope. The funding shake-up and creation of desperately needed infrastructure will lead to higher levels of professionalisation and diversity in the ranks. The boom is an opportunity for qualified journalists to set the bar higher and practice a balance between positive and negative reporting, thus reducing warped coverage. The current expansion within the Indian media then has the potential to reach Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ and give news consumers quality editorial content. It just depends how this growth is channelised.